Champions begin 2014 season in the best possible fashion.
Reigning Super 15 champions the Waikato Chiefs made a stirring start to their title defence with an 18-10 win over New Zealand rivals the Canterbury Crusaders on Friday.
The Chiefs, back-to-back winners in 2012 and 2013, produced a mighty defensive effort to hold out the late-surging Crusaders, with centre Robbie Fruean returning to torment his old club in Christchurch.
Fruean, who left the Crusaders last season to undergo a heart operation, scored the opening try in the ninth minute and the Chiefs never relinquished the lead despite sustained pressure from the home team.
The Crusaders, seven-time champions but without a title since 2008, dominated for much of the match but struggled to find the line and finally succumbed to a late intercept try from debutant winger James Lowe.
In a sign of what was to come, Richie McCaw’s Crusaders had the best of the opening exchanges, only to be repelled by a wall of Chiefs defenders.
Fruean then shrugged off three Crusaders as he sprinted down the sideline for a five pointer, with the Chiefs’ other high-profile recruit, Mils Muliaina involved in the build-up.
Chiefs’ captain Aaron Cruden added a penalty to make it 8-0, taking his Super rugby tally to 500 points.
The Crusaders had their chances but fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal squandered five penalty kicks and they went into the break scoreless.
Cruden had a try disallowed early in the second half after replays showed he lost control of the ball but made no mistake when he potted a simple penalty minutes later to take the score to 11-0.
Sam Whitelock narrowed the gap when he leapt to claim the ball in a line-out then took off for the try-line, leaving the Chiefs’ defence standing, with Tom Taylor adding the conversion.
The Chiefs suffered a major blow when forwards Brodie Retallick and Ben Afeaki went off concussed after clashing heads but they still managed to keep the Crusaders at bay.
A Taylor penalty made it 11-10 with six minutes to go and the Crusaders threatened to steal a result as they mounted wave after wave of attacks.
But Lowe pounced on a loose pass and ran almost the length of the field to secure the win, keeping alive the Chiefs’ hopes of becoming only the second team after the Crusaders to win three successive Super rugby titles.